can’t see the forest

“God Is In the House”: The Mastery of Art Tatum

Posted in art tatum, jazz, Music, Music Videos, Piano by Curtis on 12/20/06

Art Tatum (1909-1956) was an African-American jazz pianist from Toledo, Ohio. Although largely self-taught, and despite his handicap of total blindness in one eye and near-blindness in the other, Tatum is widely acknowledged to have been one of the most astounding geniuses in the history of pianism. One of his solo performances reduced the great classical virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz to tears; and when Tatum stepped in to visit a Chicago show of Fats Waller, the idol of Tatum’s youth, Fats stepped off the bandstand, saying: “Ladies and gentlemen, I am just a man who plays the piano. But, tonight, God is in the house.”

Unlike most jazz musicians, Tatum rarely deviated from the melodic line of the tunes he played. Traditionally, jazz instrumentalists focus their improvisational whimsy upon the melody of the song being covered, but Tatum’s approach was to improvise new harmonies to support the existing melodies. While the amazing grace and rapidity of his technical execution seems the most prominent feature of his playing upon first hearing, his unique genius is expressed more eloquently in his harmonic inventiveness, in the extemporaneous manner in which he could completely change the character of a tune from one chorus to the next not by varying the melody but by adding complex harmonic structures and bouncy, asymmetrical rhythms to the underpinnings of a given song.

Because of his penchant for harmonic variation and for lightning-fast tempos, Tatum was not as successful playing in groups as performing solo. Many jazz listeners complain that his renditions are difficult to listen to because there are “too many notes” or because they lack the steady and overtly “swinging” rhythms of other performers of the period. While his work may not be to the taste of all listeners, Art’s original style and his meteoric but thoroughly playful execution will make him a pianist’s pianist for many generations to come.

Tatum recorded rather sparsely, and he developed his reputation not by touring and recording but by playing to packed small clubs in New York and Los Angeles. He was an extremely heavy drinker who preferred casual environments, and, sadly, he died at a young age from kidney failure related to his beer habit. Video footage of his performances is exceedingly rare, so a clip such as this performance of “Yesterdays” is a true treat.

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One Response

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  1. peoplesgeography said, on 12/20/06 at 4:58 am

    Yes! A real treat, as is your output today my man, thanks for the great reads :)


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